All posts by Chelsea Schmitt

Q&A: Translating Film to Novel with Raptors

I don’t have much experience with writing scary stuff and I need advice. I’m trying to write a scene similar to the one in Jurassic Park where the kids are dodging the raptors. But I’m having trouble translating the tension and terror in that scene into prose.

Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton is a horror novel. If you haven’t looked at the book yet, I suggest giving it a read. You’ll find more insights into the source of the horror and how to write horror with dinosaurs in the novel than in the movie. The best way to learn about writing horror is to read horror novels. You can also read The Lost World by Michael Crichton, which isn’t a sequel to his first novel but a novelization of Spielberg’s second movie. You might glean some insights there also on the nature of translating visual mediums to the page.

Now, let’s move on to Jurassic Park the film. The raptor sequence is the capstone to the film’s subplot. The emotions you feel while watching this scene have been carefully managed and developed by what we’ve learned about the raptors, what they’re capable of, and what we’ve seen them do to the movie’s adults; including Muldoon, the park’s gamekeeper. Scenes in novels and film aren’t individual pieces which can be broken off. They’re part of a collective whole where all the pieces are working together for that climactic moment. Taking what you like from a book, a television show, or a comic is all well and good, but don’t forget to take your time and figure out how the narrative got there. What were the pieces leading up to this scene with the raptors which foreshadowed and emphasized the danger they represented? In the raptors’ case, the foreshadowing begins with the opening sequence with Muldoon and the workers putting a raptor into the cage. We never see the raptor, but we can hear it. Then, later we see Grant, Ellie, and the little boy at the digsite discussing the raptor skeleton. “You’re still alive when they start to eat you.”

This is all a careful structure on the movie’s part to build audience anticipation, including Grant having this discussion with a little boy rather than an adult. The possibility of the children being eaten in the beginning feeds toward that final scene in the movie.

The problem with looking to film specifically when trying to replicate is the presentation of a scene is visual. You need to look past the camera placement, and delve into the other four senses. The horror of Jurassic Park is a particular subgenre, one should probably familiarize yourself with on a conceptual level.

Your characters being hunted.

This is probably already obvious to you, but think it through. The scene with the raptors in Jurassic Park with the kids involves the children being hunted. With the way the shots are framed, we see both. The raptors are communicating back and forth with each other as they try to problem solve on the location of the children. The kids figure out where the raptors are through the sounds they make, and their reflections in the stainless steel cabinets. The kids need to get past the raptors and make it to the single exit from the room or else game over. The narrative has already established these animals are some of the most highly advanced and intelligent pack hunters to ever exist.

So, how do they escape?

From a written perspective, you don’t want to show the raptors. You don’t want the audience to know where they are because that heightens the tension. We see what the characters see, we hear what they hear, and the tension in a written context largely comes from what we don’t know. Based on what we don’t know, we can’t relax and neither can your characters.

Anyone can die.

You may have already planned it out for how these characters survive, but here’s the thing… you need to forget that they’re going to live and focus on them trying not to die. If you let them relax into the idea that they’re getting out of this because you already know that they are then they won’t try to survive and they’ll cheapen the scene.

Horror is about characters getting picked off one by one until only the few remain. The death count is necessary because it heightens the danger our antagonist represents, but keeping that monster in the unknown is also important. Survival should never be guaranteed. If it’s not, you’ll be focusing on the “problem solving” aspect of your characters, them figuring out under pressure how they’re going to escape this situation, and delve into the necessary “run for your life” aspect.

These characters don’t have the tools they need to fight this monster, all they can do is run. However, if you run from a Jurassic Park raptor then the raptor will run you down. They’re as fast as you, as agile as you, and more clever.

This is the video game stealth sequence where if you fuck up, you die and there’s no reload, no do-over. You’re done. So, knowing that, how do your characters behave while under pressure?

Don’t Be Afraid to Throw Out the Outline

Don’t fool yourself into thinking you need your characters to make the right choices. Don’t munchkin your way to victory. Desperate people don’t really make the right choices, they make choices which feel right to them in the moment and hope they work out.

As a creative, I loosely outline but never make myself beholden to it for the express purpose of making changes. In my first draft, I let my gut dictate where the story goes. This means, sometimes, characters who I wasn’t expecting to die do die and characters I wasn’t planning on having live ultimately survive. This gets cleaned up in later drafts, but this means that my characters are always making snap decisions in the moment. Sometimes, they work out. Sometimes, they don’t. This works well for me as a writing tool, keep in mind that it may not for you, and it’s only one option.

Think from the Perspective of Your Characters

When you watch the raptor scene from Jurassic Park, put yourself into a position where you’re re-imagining the scene from the perspective of the kids. You’re not trying to copy beat for beat. Think about how you would feel when put into a similar situation. What would you do in a similar position, what would the characters you’re writing do? We’re talking about a character being hunted, even an act as simple as sticking their head up to look for the monster can be fatal, where the sound of their breathing is a risk, when any movement could alert the monster to their presence. The kids aren’t skilled at moving without a sound and they’re in a kitchen loaded with opportunities for their hiding spot to be discovered either by a knocked off object or just by touching the thin steel wall of the cabinet.

Do you go left or right? Do you look for the monsters? How do you do this? Do you peer under the cabinets? Try to watch their reflection? Lift your head up? Do you crawl on the floor or run?

You’ve got to make a choice. If you stay in one place, you’ll die.

The raptors are looking for you. You can hear them calling back and forth to each other, but you have no idea what they’re saying. The sound hurts your ears. Your heart is pounding so loudly you’re sure the raptors can hear it. You’ve already seen so many of your friends die. Fall down, trip on the floor, not close a door fast enough, make mistakes, and, ultimately, get eaten. They’re all gone now. There’s no adults around. No one to protect you. There’s just you.

So, what do you do?

Make a dice roll. Hope you succeed.

This is really how you write action/adventure, and how you imitate Spielberg’s work in your writing. You’ve got to bring the scene home to the stakes for survival, the emotions of the characters, and the consequences of failure.

Know Your Horror

Horror thrives on the idea that your characters are ill-equipped to handle the situation, and are out of their element. They’re not perfectly suited to deal with what’s happening to them. If they are, if you present them as hyper competent and supremely capable, then it will kill all of your tension. You want completely average people trying to survive in situations where they are way over their head. The horror monster has to have the advantage, otherwise this isn’t Aliens or Predator. We’re in Aliens versus Predator territory and, whatever else we might say about them, those movies are not horror. Another example is the later Jurassic Park films like Jurassic Park III and Jurassic World which are straight up theme park action adventure, more and more outrageous as the dinosaurs become less and less legitimately dangerous to the health of our protagonists.

You need to be willing to let your characters look silly, weak, fumbling, and incompetent. Normal kids who love books on dinosaurs and computers, who constantly bicker to the point of driving everyone else around them crazy. Kids who cry, kids who whine, and clamp their hands over their mouth to keep from screaming.

-Michi

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Q&A: Relationship Advice

I’m going to break this “question” into two pieces. They’re related, but they really need to be addressed separately.

Wow if someone expected me to automatically know their triggers without telling them and then threw me without making sure I was okay after, I’d leave them. You can’t expect your non-combat s/o to do all the work and for the combat s/o to none. I have several triggers but I make sure to tell my s/o what they are.

In broad strokes, I agree with completely.

If someone expects you to automatically know who they are; that’s a problem. It happens, but it’s a problem, and it’s not the kind you should dismiss. Relationships require communication. They require work. They require mutual respect. There’s the romantic ideal of an effortless relationship, but that is just a fantasy; kinda like being a superhero.

It’s very easy to fall in love with someone that does not exist. People do it all the time. They think they know the object of their attraction, but they never really take the time to pay attention and find out who that person is. To some extent, this is human nature. You meet someone, start a crush, fill in the blanks, and then expect them to still be the same person in daylight.

It doesn’t work that way.

Like I said, honest communication is vital. You need to talk to someone to start to get an idea of who they are. Watching them is also important, but if you don’t communicate, you don’t have a baseline. You can’t expect everyone to be able to explain everything about themselves; most people aren’t that introspective. However, it will go a long way. So, yes, talk to them. Learn who they really are. Be honest, because if you’re not, you’ve only yourself to blame if they believe you.

What’s worse are the people who expect someone else to magically conform to their ideal version of them. This is abusive, and depressingly common. Many people, when presented with the reality of their significant other, expect them to cede their identity in favor of the illusory version.

It sucks, but you can’t have a relationship with a dream. Sooner or later, someone’s going to get hurt.

With only one exception, every single incident I can point to, where someone tripped another’s reflexes, it’s come out of a lack of respect, so let’s talk about that.

Relationships require mutual respect. Not, one way. Not, “you must respect them,” because the inverse is also true. If you’re not respecting one another, it’s not really a relationship of equals, or even healthy.

Ambushing someone, regardless of what you think their feelings on the subject will be, is disrespectful. You’re saying that what you intend to do is more important than them consenting to your action. Then you’re taking the extra step to deprive them of the opportunity to consent. You can’t say, “I’m going to do what I want without permission,” and say you respect that person. These are mutually exclusive.

Context is important, and there are plenty of situations where people will engage in behavior with each other that you wouldn’t. There’s also plenty of behavior you might participate in that someone else wouldn’t.

How do you know this context? Get to know your partner. Seriously. If you don’t know them, you don’t have a relationship with them, you’re involved with an illusion, and cannot respect the actual person you’re using as a proxy.

If your friend says, “hey, I do martial arts.” You might express interest in trying to figure out what that means. The same goes for your crush, regardless of their sex or gender.

If your friend says, “hey, I don’t like it when you startle me like that.”

Don’t do it.

The signs are there long before you ever trigger someone’s reflexes, and that starts with paying attention to what they tell you a long time before anything drastic occurs. If you respect another person, you respect their boundaries. You want to get to know them, learn the situations where they’re comfortable. You’ll pay attention to their body language. These reactions don’t come from nowhere, and, in general, the extreme examples are when the other person ignored every other sign leading up to the moment where the combat response happens.

Like I said, this experience happened once with a significant other in my teens. It has never happened with strangers, or other kids in High School, or in college. The only other person who has ever triggered my reflexes is my brother, who is a fourth degree black belt. These stories are always about an intentional act taken by another person when they disregard stated boundaries and comfort zones.

Tripping the fight reflexes are not common occurrences. They’re extreme examples that happen with a specific trigger action and are a result of ignoring the other person’s boundaries. You’ll figure it out if you respect the other person enough to pay attention to them.

If someone engages in unprovoked violent towards you, leave. There’s no room for debate here. It’s over. Time to move on.

However, conflating physical abuse with these specific instances is also a problem.  But… I didn’t do anything wrong. Yes, you did. If this happens, then you ignored the warning signs to the point where a response that occurs once in a decade (and only with provocation) happened to you.

You’ve learned a concept exists and, like a kid in a candy store, think the natural occurrence of combat reflexes unintentionally damaging a significant other because they stepped wrong is far more common than it actually is — which is next to never.

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess you don’t know anyone who actually has these reflexes, or been in a community where they’re common. So, trust me, when I say I know more about this situation and what triggers it than you do.

You know what this behavior gets used for, don’t you?

Bullying.

Kids without combat training, just like you, will use this on kids with combat training or just sensitive reflexes because they A) don’t believe the other child when they say stop, and B) because they know they’ll get sympathy when/if the other child goes off. They get away with bullying and look like a victim when the inevitable occurs. They want the emotional response you had to protect them from the big bad child over there, even though they were the instigators.

If you think this doesn’t happen in relationships, think again. Abuse goes both ways, and having a capacity for violence doesn’t necessarily protect you from it. You do get a lot less belief and sympathy when the abuse, be it emotional or physical occurs, because of uninformed attitudes which buy into the idea violence equals strength.

I have more stories about these kinds of people than I do the other.

 I think, in a romantic situation in fiction, the non-combat s/o shouldn’t be ‘punished’ in the narrative and trauma-related responses shouldn’t be ‘weaker’.

As with the above statement, I agree fundamentally, but it’s a little more complicated. If you’re writing a couple, it’s important that they have some kind of equilibrium between each other. The advice above still applies: they need to be able to communicate with one another, there needs to be a baseline of trust and respect, but they also need to both bring something to the table. I in the real world, that’s work, but in fiction it can easily be their skill set.

It’s easy to become fixated on violence as an overly useful skill set. This isn’t true to life, and it can be very important to remember that non-combatant characters have lives beyond violence.

The simple thing is to remember that all of your characters, whether they’re in a relationship with one another or not, need to be characters in their own right. You need some balance to show them as functional people, or they become trophies and McGuffins; which brings us to your complaint.

At a certain level, combat is like any other skill your characters may have. A character who doesn’t have any combat skills can’t fight effectively, a character who can’t pick locks, can’t sneak into places, a character who is unskilled with computers can’t diagnose their own technical issues, a character who isn’t trained in criminal investigation isn’t going to know how to investigate a murder. A character who’s basically honest will have an extremely hard time lying convincingly.

You can have battle couples, where both of them are trained and proficient in combat. They may be in the thick of it together with similar skills, or they may have different focuses that they can work together. By the same measure, you can have couples with similar skillsets, such as hacking, or subterfuge, with similar considerations. Or, you can have characters that have very little overlap in their skills, but can still work together in differing capacities.

The problem comes in when you say, “this skill set” is more valid than that one. In some occasions that may be true, but it’s something you want to be careful about.

On a related issue, it is worth pulling characters out of their comfort zone regularly. A character who never encounters a problem they need to get creative with can easily become monotonous, in a, “when all you have is a hammer,” kind of way. This is one of the times where having a couple with mismatched skills can become incredibly useful. Especially if your combat capable character is just as out of place when they’re in their partner’s area of expertise.

If you have a character that’s permanently out of their depth, especially pairing them with someone who’s hyper-competent, that’s flirting with bad writing. I can think of a few counter-examples, but this is something you should be very cautious about.

There’s a real trend in the real world of people not believing people when they say, “don’t do this. I don’t like it.” This is the basis of the trope we were discussing. If you triggered someone’s fight reflexes, chances are very good that it wasn’t an accident. The person who did it just didn’t believe the other person when they said, “don’t do that.” You made a bad assumption that the non-combat S/O is going to be the one with the trauma responses or even that the combat triggers are trauma related at all. Or that they’d cause trauma to the non-combat S/O. If you interpreted one as “weaker” than the other because they don’t have the same skills as their combat S/O, then that one is on you.

Relationships are built on trust. Trust is built on communication and mutual respect. These mishaps happen specifically when boundaries are not respected, when the other person is not believed because these aspects of who they are doesn’t fit the image their S/O has of them. While these are ingrained reflexes, it does actually take work to get someone to reflexively lash out.

Modifying your behavior for the person you love is not a big deal when they’re doing the same for you. If someone you like says, “I don’t like you tickling me.” Then, don’t tickle them. If they say, “Please, don’t flash your hand in my face.” Don’t flash your hand in their face.

If you feel adjusting your behavior is unfair, don’t date.

-Michi

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Q&A: Reality Or Entertainment? You need both.

Hi! You raise a good question on choreography. Actors can’t do realistic fight scenes and it has to look entertaining. Well, then why are we creating realistic fight scenes in writing instead of entertaining? Of course on screen it’s restrictive by the medium. Are realistic fight scenes in writing more entertaining than unrealistic movie fight scenes in writing? Or is it just because it’s writing we have free rein and not restrictive to what can be done for a movie.

Why does it have to be one or the other?

The answer is both. You want fight scenes that are entertaining and convincing, and the only way to learn how to do that is study the applications of practical combat, martial arts, choreographed fight sequences, and everything in between.

The written medium is not the visual medium, so the way one entertains their audiences is ultimately different. Besides that, the vast majority of you are not a professional fight choreographers with multiple black belts in different martial styles and years of experience in the business. You lack skilled actors and stunt performers to carry out your vision, and, because movies are a visual medium, you don’t have a moving image or even an image like in comic books or art to attract the eye. You can create an image with words, but it isn’t the same. In visual medial, this is an image you are beholden to if you want to keep your audience engaged and entertained. Realistic violence is not engaging in the same way as choreographed fights in films. They are fundamentally different due to the necessity of motion. Movies specifically go in for wide sweeping attacks like the roundhouse punch or the roundhouse kick or the wheel kick because a spinning or circular motions look better on camera. Large easily telegraphed moves so the audience can see from a distance and follow along.

In a written fight scene there is no moving image, no sound effects, no music, no lighting effects, no jump cuts, no professional actors, stunt actors, choreographers, or costume crew.

There’s just you and what you, the writer, can bring to the table.

The visual medium has different requirements than written. Try as you might, you’ll never engage your audience at the same level because you lack the tools. If you try, you’ll end up with unworkable fight scenes which are too long, unwieldy, and ultimately bore your audience.

What use is a character performing six back flips or cartwheels on page to get to the other side of the room and grab the weapon on the opposing wall?

This is a visually engaging stunt piece on screen, but the effect lays in the quality of the movement and how your eyes are stimulated by it. The over the top aspects and overlong fight scenes of your traditional action movie are a liability because their goal is to create a visual spectacle and they take a long time to get to the point. You can get to the effect much faster in a written format and be just as effective.

Now, the question you should be asking about choreographed fight scenes is precisely what those six cartwheels are conveying to the audience about this character’s combat proficiency. Why cartwheels versus them running to the opposite side of the room and grabbing the weapon? Yes, gymnastics are entertaining to watch but that’s not the only reason why they had the character cartwheel. There’s no practical reason for it, but the act is communicating an aspect of the character and the plot to you. You should learn those signals, because you can figure out how to apply those to your writing (without needing cartwheels.)

However, you’ll still face a basic issue. Can you write interesting and entertaining fight sequences if you know nothing about violence?

Let’s look at this snippet below.

Katie smiled, her fingers grazing the .44 Magnum on her hip. She pulled it, grabbed the bottle of Jack, and rolled to her feet. “Hey, Josh.”

Joshua Barnett stood across from her, his hands stuffed into the pockets of his leather jacket. Obsidian bangs fell across one eye, jaggedly cut with a razor. His look was intent on some sort of punk aesthetic, all red and black rocker tee, thick silver chains, and black designer jeans. A loose, shark tooth earring dangled on a chain off his right earlobe. He cocked his head, studying her with one, visible, inky black eye. “Look at you stealing my look.”

Katie’s lips quirked, the revolver tucked in the shadow of her thigh as she swirled amber whiskey around thick glass. She never saw much point in spending one hundred and twenty dollars on an outfit that’d be ruined by sun up. Leather was a practical choice. Spirits had an aversion to tanned flesh. Besides, leather jacket and jeans held up better when doing dirty work. She steered away from wearing earrings, piercings had a nasty habit of getting torn out. And steel-toed work boots? All the better for breaking shins.

Tianna squeaked and ducked low behind the headstone.

Josh’s eyes moved past Katie, falling to where she tried to hide. “Step away. Me and this bitch’ve got unfinished business.”

Katie snorted.

Josh took a step forward, spreading his hands in his pockets. “Hey, I’m just doing my divinely mandated duty. Am I gonna have to snap you apart like a kit-kat bar?” He grinned. “I’m kinda looking forward to tearing your weak halfsie arm out of that socket, but, you know, Cass won’t like her pet coming home broke.”

Lifting the Jack, Katie took another long drink.

Josh stood stock still, his arms half-out, and his stupid grin stuck waiting for a response. Then, he looked away. He dropped his hands and brought the black jacket back to his waist. “You never were any fun.”

“You talk too much,” Katie replied.

He nodded to the Jack Daniel’s bottle in her hand. “Hey, I’m not the one who comes to the graveyard with a weak ass club like that.” He chuckled. “Didn’t Cass teach you? Don’t bring weapons to a fist fight when you plan to go mano a mano. In a duel, it’s not sporting.”

Katie walked forward. She didn’t like to talk. As she closed, she dropped her arm. On her last step, she swung the bottle at his head.

Josh grinned, and Katie knew why. He was a full-fledged Follower of Ma’at. To him, her fastest, hardest swing moved in slow motion.

That’s why I stopped relying on hand to hand.

His forearm came up, blocked her wrist.

Their eyes met.

The .44 Magnum appeared from behind her thigh, pointed at his knee.

Josh’s eyes dropped.

Katie fired. The bullet struck flesh, hollowed through muscle into bone, and exploded. The lower half of Josh’s leg went with it. Blown off.

He tumbled to the ground, screaming.

“Fulminated mercury rounds,” Katie said. “Can’t take normal hollow points against vampires. Dense bones, denser musculature. You need a little extra. Just like Followers, Joshua.”

“Wake the Dead” – CE Schmitt & Michael J Schwarz

So, how much of this is real?

  1. Jack Daniel’s bottles are made from dense, heavy glass, and unlikely to come apart in your hand like a regular glass bottle. They work exceptionally well as clubs. (If you want to watch one in action in a visual medium, you can find it used Dirty Laundry – the Punisher short film with Thomas Jayne by Phil Joanou from Adi Shankar’s bootleg universe. This is very R. Be wary if you’re squeamish.)
  2. Fulminated mercury rounds are real. You load fulminated mercury up into hollow point rounds and create an explosive. They’re liable to explode within the chamber of a semi-automatic handgun, but the .44 Magnum is a revolver. Different delivery mechanism. Boom.
  3. Hiding a drawn gun in the shadow of your thigh is a real tactic. The position masks the profile of the gun, your arm blends with the leg, so the eye doesn’t catch it.
  4. Katie distracts Joshua from the gun and her arm’s position with a visible weapon: the bottle, then by swinging the bottle at his head. She intentionally trips his fight reflexes i.e. flashing motion in his peripheral vision and forces him to focus high. (Standard martial arts feint, where you throw a false strike to camouflage your real intentions.) This keeps Joshua from seeing the second weapon until it’s too late.

In this scene, we’ve got an underdog character turning the tables on their opponent by immediately shutting them down with superior force of arms. The fight scene lasts less than a page, but it’s effective at teaching you who this character is along with the kind of combat tactics they use.

However, the point is not what’s real; only metric you’re graded on is what you can convince your audience of. There’s plenty of embellishment in this scene, but the actions and behaviors of the characters are grounded in a real place. They’re behaving logically, in ways which make sense to them, and are on par with what we might expect of someone with their combat background. While “realistic” is not what makes a scene enjoyable, it can help you create more interesting fight sequences and sell the idea your character knows what they’re doing. A large part of what makes this scene interesting is the entire ten page setup that you’re missing, the emotional investment in Katie and why she’s brutally murdering another teen, which is part of what’s needed to get the reader invested in the fight on page.

Remember, fight sequences are often a release of tension. They ultimately create more problems than they solve as violence invariably escalates out of control, but they serve as a stress valve for the narrative and, with good ones, a reward for your audience.

If you know nothing about violence, the weapons used, how strategy works, and what the techniques look like, can you write the scene you imagine? Can you telegraph to your audience through classic show don’t tell? Did you realize there was more to show don’t tell for written fight scenes than simply showing your characters fighting? Do you know what makes a fight scene entertaining?

A writer has different tools available in their arsenal to create an entertaining fight sequence, but in order to write that sequence you need to understand how violence works. The physicality of it, the kinetics of it, the psychology of it, the way violence feels, tastes, and smells.

You’ve made a basic mistake in your assumption about “realistic”. Narrative Realism is based in the substructure of your story. Realism is whatever the rules are in your setting say is real. What creates suspension of disbelief for your audience is how well you adhere to those rules, this covenant you create with your audience. When your audience cries, “unrealistic!” You’ve broken their suspension of disbelief, you’ve broken the established narrative rules of your setting. You broke your covenant with your audience.

The goal of understanding “realistic” lies in learning about the realities of violence as combat, understanding the entertainment factor requires looking at the art portion of martial arts.

You need both.

Structuring a scene requires understanding violence from both an unrealistic and realistic perspective. You need to know what you’re sacrificing in order to be entertaining, heighten your tension and character drama, and then what you’re keeping. Your characters’ goals, decisions, and the way they choose to take action will be based in realism and a realistic extension of what makes sense for them. Meanwhile, the combat element will be driven from the perspective of entertainment choreography which is based in, you guessed it, real martial arts.

He had a handsome face, far as humans went, and a smug expression. Her fingers clenched into fists. She wanted to beat his smug face in.

He lifted a hand, and flicked his fingers. “Give me your best shot.”

Lunging across the distance, Katie came at him low. Her first strike a feint, she cut under his block and drove her left fist into his solar plexus. The Mark above her heart burned, energy flowing into her fists. Pinpoint like a brass knuckle overlay. Her mind hazy with deja vu. She punched him a second time in his abdomen with her right, then cut up. Her strike caught him under the chin. She drove her follow-up elbow into his throat.

Garrett grunted, stumbling backwards.

She ducked past him when he retaliated. Wheeling, she kicked him in the calf. Her leg came up, and she slammed her heel into his kidney.

Garrett turned, seizing her ankle. With one arm, he flung her over the couch.

Katie landed hard on the coffee table. The table gave way, cracking apart in a spray of wood and glass. She hit the floor. Pain spiked through her back, glass shards cut through her jacket and skin. She tasted copper on her tongue. Electricity swarmed the fingers on her left hand, alive and tingling.

He wiped the blood off his mouth.

She rolled back, kicked up, and landed on her feet.

“Wake the Dead” by CE Schmitt and Michael J Schwarz

We’ve got two characters who are not human, so the normal rules don’t apply. Still, we’re following the standard progression in the combat from Katie based on distance. She lunges strikes him with her left then her right fist in his stomach, up into an upper cut, and then follows up with an elbow to the throat after creating her opening. The upper cut knocks his chin up, exposing his throat and the arm drops into a perfect position to deliver a powerful blow with a close-quarters strike. That is four strikes together. This is called a combination. More importantly, these are four strikes structured with an understanding of both distance and placement i.e. how close you need to be in order for the strike to realistically work.

Like Katie, Garrett is not human and he has super-strength. He can throw her like a ragdoll with one arm from a standing position without needing any extra help from her incoming momentum. He gets hit by her heel, has it driven into his kidney via some version of an axe kick, and then he retaliates by one arming her across the room. This is him showing his superhuman resilience, even though the reader is liable to brush it off because of what they’re used to seeing from action movies.

The goal here is to be entertaining, to attract the imagination, but what helps sell the fight is the writer’s familiarity with the subject matter.

As a writer, knowledge is your ouroboros. Everything feeds together in a never ending cycle. The more you learn, the better the writer you become. If you want to write entertaining fight sequences, you need to learn as much about violence as you can in all its different aspects. You need to figure out why violence is entertaining, why these acts capture the human imagination, and also how they actually work within the real world so you can bring that knowledge to your fiction. Every new bit of knowledge you uncover is a new tool in your box which can be applied to your writing.

And you shouldn’t stop with violence.

Learn as much as you can about everything you can get your hands on. The more you explore, the more you discover, and the more you learn to operationalize knowledge gained, the better the writer you will be.

Q&A: Wired Reflexes

Is the moment where a trained character not being able to control their “fight reflexes” or whatever ends up hurting an innocent bystander or loved one a real thing? Like somebody sneaks up on you from behind and you just elbow them in the groin or something? Or flip them over? Then you’re like, “Oh shit babe, don’t scare me like that”.

I did this to my now ex-boyfriend when I was fifteen and a freshman in high school. We were at my house, in my kitchen. He came up behind me with the plan to hug me (bear hug style) and, before his arms had even gotten around me, I elbowed him right in the gut. Full strength strike with a full extension and he walked right into it. The arm went out and came right back into his stomach, aimed at his diaphragm. He coughed, bowled over, and it took about five full minutes before he recovered.

After asking if he was okay, my exact response was: “You can’t come up behind me like that.”

The one aspect you’re missing in this whole scenario is you think this is a fear based response. It isn’t. I wasn’t scared, and neither are the characters you’re describing. Fight reflexes are hardwired responses to specific movements occurring within your environment, movement happening or beginning within your peripheral vision. I actually had the widest peripheral vision out of my entire science class when we measured in the eight grade due entirely to my martial arts training. The goal of this training is to see the movement coming before the motion begins. You’re trained to see it before it starts and respond immediately. In a fight scenario you have tenths of a second between blocking a hit and getting struck. If you want to stop a blow, you need to go when they do and get there before they reach extension. You don’t wait, you just go.

The key to understanding what happened with my ex was the bear hug.  He was behind me, his arms were out and coming around my body. My training dictates a response before his arms get a chance to lock in, so my reflexes kicked in. There was no emotion involved, it happened because that’s what I’d spent ten years training my body to do. The training worked exactly as intended, the only difference was the person it happened to. What we got was a false flag, but in the same scenario where I was actually in danger I’d have responded the same way. I’d have started the fight with the would be attacker bowled over, unable to breathe, derailed by what happened, and at my mercy. The battle over before it had a chance to begin, which is what we’re training to do.

Starke’s had a few of them himself, but has been able to stop himself before following through. His friend’s father, a Vietnam vet, once grabbed one of their mutual friends by the throat when he failed to announce himself before walking into the room. Starke’s friend’s father was up out of his chair, turned around, and had his hand around his throat before he registered who he was looking at. According to Starke, he didn’t apologize.

This isn’t PTSD or mental illness. This is the training we were given working as intended. When you’re in a situation where you need to move without consciously ordering your body to do so, which is the beginning of most fights, your reflexes take over. The difference between victory and defeat lies in the first initial tenths of a second before the fight begins.

The only difference here is context. You go flashing your hand in the peripheral vision of someone with combat training and you may end up with a response you weren’t expecting, even when that person is someone you love and who loves you. (And you shouldn’t be flashing your hand in their peripheral vision if you love them.)

The fear response is going to come for your significant other. There’s a vast gap between consciously knowing your loved one can hurt you and experiencing it first hand. My ex-boyfriend was a jock who played soccer. He used to overpowering other male teens if he got into a brawl. However he justified it to himself afterwards, he got wrecked by his 128 pound girlfriend without ever having the opportunity to defend himself and he had to live with the knowledge she could do it again if she wanted to. He didn’t look at me the same way after that. It is one thing to consciously understand, another to know they can hurt you, really hurt you in the blink of an eye, and another after to know they just might on accident. Your safety is gone, and you might experience the vertigo of being unable to exert control over your situation. There are plenty of real life relationships which end due to this problem.

If you’ve never been thrown before, you might not understand how terrifying it is. If you’ve never been thrown full force into a hardwood floor, you definitely aren’t going to grasp how much it hurts and how out of control you feel when you’re significant other is standing over you going, “oh, hey.”

The response you’re going to get is not, “oh my god, what have I done” either or intense remorse. It’s more “oops” and “don’t do that.” We all knew exactly what we were doing when we did it, we just didn’t remember who we were doing it to. For the person without these trained reflexes, this response can seem cold and unfeeling. Like their significant other doesn’t care they just hurt them. From the combat SO’s perspective, their significant other did something incredibly stupid and they’d rather they didn’t do it again. They worked very hard to develop these reflexes and incorporate them into part of their identity. There is no switch to turn them on or off. They’re always on.

Now, these ingrained fight responses are avoidable if you recognize that they’re there, they will happen, and you take steps to avoid triggering them. This can be as simple as “please say something before you walk into the room” or “let me know you’re there before you tap me on the shoulder” or “tap me on the waist instead” and “don’t hug me from behind.” The more serious the person’s experiences, the more necessary this becomes. The reflex can be consciously restrained, but it takes genuine effort to cut yourself off at the pass before you follow through. There’s mental pain involved, and you spend a great deal of time after the fact fighting the ingrained reaction off.

This is part of why it’s easier for two people with combat training to date each other than date someone without combat training. Their SO is aware of the situation, shares it, understands their limitations, and will work to circumnavigate without needing to talk about it.

Starke and I do this with each other, and we haven’t ever had a problem.

Media will often play this trope for laughs, which is a problem. Or roll these fight reactions into PTSD or mental illness, which is also a problem. Or they’ll have the combat SO be disingenuous in their reactions like you were suggesting to show how dangerous they are.

The mixed up part of this conversation that’s difficult for non-martial artists or combat veterans to understand is it’s much easier for you to avoid tapping me on the shoulder than it is for me to avoid throwing you if you try tapping me on the shoulder when a hand moving in that specific way within my peripheral vision is a motion I’ve spent ten years re-training my response to.

If you care about your SO, you shouldn’t ask them to fight themselves in order to be around you.

Remember, the non-combat SO initiated the situation. They acted first. They violated their SO’s boundaries. The only difference here between a combat and a non-combat SO is the ability to preemptively physically stop someone from violating their boundaries without requiring a verbal response. The combat SO wouldn’t have responded the way they did if the other person hadn’t initiated. If you are in a relationship with someone, you need to respect their boundaries and what they are comfortable with.

If your SO is someone who’s ingrained response is to throw someone when they sneak up behind them, then you should not only know not to sneak up on them but have enough empathy to understand this action is a violation of their personal space. This is also a violation of the trust their combat SO places in them. The non-combat SO is not the victim of their partner’s uncontrolled violence or experienced an intentional desire to do them harm. They acted first. They shouldn’t treat their combat SO’s combat reflexes like a light switch where exceptions can be made. In this situation, the non-combat SO is actually the one not respecting their partner and in the wrong.

The moral of this story is that when I was fifteen my then boyfriend violated my physical boundaries, did not let me know his intentions before acting, did not ask if his action was okay with me, and took an elbow to the gut for his trouble. I didn’t feel remorse at the time for knocking the wind out of him, I still don’t now. Ultimately, the response stuck with me. The action convinced fifteen year old me that maybe I didn’t want him touching me after all, which is what led to our break up. And, in the end, I was the one who broke up with him.

That said, in my whole life, I’ve only ever experienced my combat reflexes getting triggered in a way where the response was immediate three times.

People aren’t props. The main issue with this trope in fiction where the set up is supposed to lead to intense remorse from the combat SO which results in a cute scenario after is that the non-combat SO violated their SO’s boundaries. They don’t really care about them, or not enough to respect the other person’s experiences. If they repeat, they definitely don’t.

If your knee-jerk response is “but I shouldn’t have to change my behavior” then you shouldn’t date them, period. If they’re out there intentionally hurting you that’s different, you should run away fast. However, everyone has their boundaries. Learn to respect them before intentionally triggering someone with combat training.

-Michi

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Q&A: The Force of a Knockout

How hard does one actually have to hit someone to knock them unconscious? It’s a really common thing in media, but never fully explained. I know it’s not the most crucial detail I’m just curious. P.s. this blogs content is incredible.

The prevalence of the knockout in fiction and visual media like television is actually for narrative convenience. When you have a situation where there’s no easy way to end a scene and you don’t want the character to kill or permanently injury the other guy, then a knockout is a convenient way to end the scene. Fiction uses the knockout as a convenient tool, often to the point where it becomes a crutch, in order to quickly switch from one sequence to another. The end result is often consequence free violence.

A knockout is when the other person falls unconscious from being hit. This is the brain saying, “I don’t want to be here anymore. I give up.” And passing out. Given the brain is the necessary organ which controls your entire body, if it fails in function, you don’t live, it can’t stay shut off for an extended period of time. Knockouts usually only last for a few seconds, and you’ll see this one with boxing and their ten count. If a boxer can get up again after being knockout out in ten seconds, then they can continue. If not, the match is over. If they don’t wake up within the ten seconds, they’re rushed to the hospital. If a human is knocked out for a significant length of time then there’s a chance they’re not waking up… ever.

Now, knockouts are difficult to achieve with just your hands. It’s very difficult to knock a human out in general, but the arm doesn’t generate enough force on its own in a basic strike to successfully knock someone out. You either need repeat actions (which are unlikely to cut it, and you don’t want to punch someone in the face because you’re likely to break the bones in your hand), use a greater method of delivering force to the head like with your feet, or aim for a pressure point like the jaw or the temple. The knockout punch in boxing is a hook punch that aims for the point of separation where your jaw connects with the upper portion of your skull. This is pressure point, a cluster of nerves, which when successfully struck can potentially cause a knock out. (Potentially, this is not a guarantee, and it is a difficult mark to hit even when you’ve created the opening to get there.)

So, the second reason for the prevalence of the knockout punch in fiction is that as a stage punch, the hook, haymaker, or round punch completes the Hollywood trifecta. The hook is easy to learn, easy to whiff, and looks impressive. It is also cost effective, and most of your actors can learn to make it look good without needing to switch them in and out with their stunt doubles. Round houses and wheel kicks are stunts requiring a higher level of technical proficiency, and are more dangerous because they have a greater chance of knocking someone out on connection.

Hand strikes to the head that aim for knockouts are the hook aiming for the point where the jaw meets the upper portion of the skull, the ridgehand strike aiming for your temple where there’s a gap in your skull and soft tissue. We’ve also got strikes like the spinning backhand, which targets the temple and generates greater force than the average hand strike by spinning. Now, when we move onto spinning strikes, jumping strikes, and kicks, we’re discussing the real force delivering blows of martial arts.

We can knock someone out by varying means, as pointed out above, by application through pressure points. The others include cutting off flow of oxygen or blood to the brain by means of a strike, choke, or submission hold. The frontal portion of the skull is a where some of the strongest bones in your body reside, and is well protected against most of the dangers you’ll come across. Punching someone’s face with your bare hand is actually more liable to break you than you are to break them, which is why the advice is to aim for soft targets on the body, or the throat. Or hit someone in the back of the head, where the skull is softer.

Now, you asked specifically about the amount of force necessary to knock someone out. Which is to say, you asked how to give them a concussion.

Force = Momentum

So, the greater your momentum, the greater your chance of dealing a knockout blow.

  • Someone who is running at you will hit you much harder than someone standing still.
  • Your legs are much more powerful than your arms.
  • Spinning and jumping are means of gaining speed, which lends to greater momentum when connection occurs.

Ergo, a technique which combines running, jumping, and spinning with a kick will deal the greatest force all together than just one or two. However, one on its own is enough to knock someone out because all three together can kill you. As can one, just by itself. Go watch some compilation knockout videos for martial arts, specifically from kickboxing, and you’ll see what I mean. This will look very different from what you’re used to seeing on television.

If you’re sitting here, thinking that sounds like a lot of work for a knockout… you’d be correct. Knockouts are actually rare. They’re the intervening place between dazed/stunned and death, where the brain has decided it doesn’t want to function anymore. Concussions aren’t convenient or safe, and can result in long term damage to the individual who experiences one. With fictional knockouts, they’re essentially just deaths that the narrative uses as a convenient method to rid itself of Mook A. This doesn’t cover the damage the victim can do to themselves in the uncontrolled fall, if you don’t catch them on the way down, which could also permanently injure or kill them.

The actual process of subduing someone without permanently injuring or killing them is very involved, much more risky, and takes a long time. Then, there’s the question of what’s to be done with them afterwards. This requires they give up, don’t run off to get their friends, and rally. If you subdue them to the point where you can tie them up and leave them, their buddies might find them and even if they’re no longer in a position to fight they can still provide their friends with actionable intelligence on you, your goals, your fighting style, etc.

So, in real life, you’ve got to make a choice about what you’re going to do. How much time you have to waste. How you’re going to reach your objective because time doesn’t stand still and wait for you to finish. They’re working toward their own objectives, and its a race to see who is going to get there first.

In fiction, the knockout is a convenient crutch which ensures you don’t have to. The fight is over, but you don’t have to ask questions about what happens next to the other character. There’s comfort here, and the presentation of realism without being realistic. Very little of what you see in fictionalized media/television is connected to reality. This starts with the techniques they use, which are big motions clearly designed to send tells which allow you, the audience, to understand what’s going on.

Knockouts in fiction are the same way. They’re a convenient means of moving and removing your pieces through slight of hand that your audience is already conditioned to accept. This feels legitimate, and if you take nothing else away from this learning experience then you should understand that the feeling of legitimacy and internalized logic of the scene sells far more to your audience than any reality because they don’t as a whole know what the reality looks like.

Often, when asking questions about force, the question is wrong. Force in martial arts isn’t generated by physical strength but from momentum the body generate while in motion. The development of your musculature is for control and endurance, which is what allows you to fight longer. A human being is not fragile against natural threats. Most of fighting is not a metric of force v. force, but a combination of strategy, tactics, and opening techniques which lead to more damaging techniques. When we start adding in weapons, then the situation changes. For example, the kind of force I could deliver with my arm and hand alone changes when I use a steel pipe. It would be easier for me to use a lead pipe to bash your head in than it would be for me to kick you in the head with a wheel kick.

TLDR of this post is: knockouts are hard to set up in real life, they’re rare without having someone beat on for an extended period of time, and they’re convenient in fiction because they set up a situation where the audience believes you’ve gotten rid of the other character without having to ask moral questions about killing them

-Michi

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Q&A: Stunt Performers and Choreography

Since fights are choreographed on TV and they’re trying to make it look authentic, can it still actually look unrealistic to an expert simply because actual moves are thought up on the spot and not through planning? Any examples? Other than like being a split second out of sync where the actor starts a counter move before the move comes or looking in the direction before the move comes? But unrealistic because there’s no time to think but the cherographer has so much time to think and plan.

Okay, so, here is the most important thing to understand about any choreographed combat you see in a television, movie, or even a play: choreography is a cooperative performance between two (or more) individuals. What you are watching is not a fight, it’s a performance designed to look convincing. If you want to see what combat looks like when people aren’t working together then go watch sparring videos on YouTube or MMA bouts.

Now, if your question is: can an expert tell when an actor in the fight scene doesn’t know what they’re doing?

Yes.

The role of the stuntman is to make the actor/their partner look incredible, to ensure they are the star of the scene, to cover for them when they blow their mark, to perform the dangerous stunts for them, and the professional stunt actors are very good at doing their job. They are so good that the average audience goer cannot tell when the stunt actor switches with the actor in the scene, or even when the same stunt actor is switching out for two different actors/actresses with completely different fighting styles on the same show if the show has a small budget.

However, you can’t take someone who has never done martial arts before and make them an expert in three months. Most actors with no history of martial training or training a completely separate martial art have a ton of tells, from shallow stances, poor foot position, hands too far apart, elbows akimbo, to physical tension (too tense, too loosey-goosey), lack of tightness in their punches/arms/legs/shoulders/chest, all upper body, no hip movement, lack of general body coordination, zero kinetic force or convincing presentation of, and when their stuntman/woman is switched in between the different shots. Most of the time, you’re not watching the actor do their own stunt fighting and there’s usually definitive differences between the two just by body type. Lastly, the tempo of stunt combat in the scene is much slower. The speed of a fight scene with an inexperienced actor doing most of their stunts is slower and less technically impressive than the average two man open combat form at a martial arts tournament.

Have you ever watched professional stunt actors show off all their skills in finely tuned choreographed glory? (I present you with Mortal Kombat Legacy: Kitana versus Melina, starting at 1:17.) You have if you’ve ever watched professional wrestling, or a Jackie Chan movie, or Jet Li, the cast of Into the Badlands, or The Expendables.

These fight scenes happen at a much higher tempo, with more complex action, more risky techniques which require much more physical control to be performed safely without risk of harming your partner. For example, the Kitana and Melina fight showcases a jump back kick, a jump wheel kick, and several coordinated flips/other acrobatics. These are not tricks you can safely ask an untrained actor to perform on screen, and their contracts usually won’t let them even if they can. These techniques require a lot of trust between working partners because there’s a much greater risk of injury than your standard roundhouse stage punch.

Again, if you don’t notice the difference, it’s because the stuntmen/women are doing their jobs. The onus is on them too make the scenes look good. They’re the ones who have the physical control to do the risky stunts, to do the falls, to make the hits look like hits without actually ever being hit. When you see your favorite character hit someone and they go spinning to crash land in the corner and it looks awesome? That’s the stunt actor.

Appreciate them.

Most fight scenes in television are not designed to be authentic, their first goal is to be entertaining.  The vast majority of fight scenes in movies and television have no relationship with the realities of, say, a sparring match. They’re performances meant to engage and enhance the viewer’s experience. In fact, general audiences decry films who have hewed closer to the real world in their combat choreography as boring. Realism is an obsession audiences develop when their suspension of disbelief is disrupted, or from a desire to know if what they see on screen could exist in real life.  Most people tend to think that the violence they see on screen is like violence in real life, and that makes sense because they are inundated with onscreen choreographed violence and have nothing to compare their experiences to.

However, believable and realistic are separate discussions. Most fight scenes in movies represent a human durability that is, quite frankly, superhuman. Even the best of them are not realistic, and that’s fine. Believable is what most movie fight scenes strive to be or else they disrupt your suspension of disbelief. There are fanboys who will swear up and down that the violence in The Dark Knight is realistic. The fight scenes in the movie don’t resemble reality at any passing glance, but the movie succeeded in convincing them that the violence within the fantasy was real or could be. That is the hallmark of a fight scene done well.

You believe the scene.

The scene enhanced your viewing experience.

You enjoyed it.

This is all the average movie is after.

When I write fight scenes, the above is all I care about. Did the scene serve its purpose within my narrative? Did it enhance the reader’s experience? Was it convincing within the setting rules I established? Did they enjoy it? I lean into stylized choreography in my fight scenes, and I use what I know to enhance what I create. When we tear back the curtain, what we find should enhance of our enjoyment rather than disappoint.

The takeaway here should be newfound appreciation for all the people who work so hard and risk so much to produce the entertainment media you enjoy.

So, remember Lauren Mary Kim, Amy Johnston, and all the other fabulous stuntwomen and stuntmen out there who’re making your fight sequences, stunts, and superhero movies convincing. Check out their work, maybe follow their Instagrams, their Twitters, watch their movies (like Lady Bloodfight and Accident Man), and subscribe to them on YouTube.

Do it.

-Michi

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Q&A: War Prince, Peace Prince, or Athletic Prince? What’s the world he lives in?

Should a crown prince character learn how to fight? On one hand, learning to fight could be seen as ‘we expect the crown prince to be put in a situation where he would need to fight’ which would mean his guards have failed. On the other hand, learning to use weapons could be treated more like a sport to build dedication, endurance, confidence, etc. Then again, I’ve seen references to princes fighting in history so I’m not sure how this should be handled/explained if I want a fighting prince.

Depends.

The only rule for the conqueror throughout most of history is you can have it if you can take it, and it’s only yours if you can hold onto it. The idea of kings and princes being insulated from combat is one which we come out of England at the end of Henry VIIIs reign and into the Elizabethan era, but it’s worth remembering that Henry VII took the crown by force. The word Normans comes from Northmen, and the original province of Normandy in France was given over to raiding Vikings led by a man called Rollo by the Frankish king under the agreement that they would protect the Frankish coast from other invaders. Many a king, prince, and nobleman has been created by simply having the biggest and baddest raiding force. In the Middle Ages, the king was expected to lead his forces into battle.

You know Richard III from Shakespeare’s eponymous play? The real one was killed on the battlefield by Henry VII, Elizabeth I’s grandfather at the end of the War of the Roses.

William the Conqueror, Henry II, Richard the Lionheart, Henry V, Edward the Black Prince, Empress Maude, Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Owain Fawr, Llewellyn the Great, Robert the Bruce,  Edward IV, Richard III, Henry VII, and the list goes on.

You don’t have to justify it. History supports the conqueror prince and the conqueror king, and situations where the prince had to be able to fight because he was expected to lead his men into battle. If he couldn’t then someone else, a brother, a cousin, another nobleman, or even some nobody could swoop in and take the crown from him. You’ll find history is littered with instances like this.

So, here’s the real question: what kind of crown prince and setting are you imagining?

Is this the Fairy Tale Crown Prince? For all his trappings, the fictional fairy tale Crown Prince is post Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. He carries the aesthetics, but he’s not based on the warrior princes of Medieval Europe. This is the beginning of the modern era. When most people think about monarchies in terms of fairy tales, they’re essentially imagining Catherine the Great’s Russia without the guns. These are codified nations with standing militaries and treaties, which only go to war with each other frequently instead of constantly. Where the Crown Prince would be educated in the ways of the military, even be expected to serve in a ceremonial role, but never sets foot on the battlefield’s front lines. Similarly, this is also when the local nobility starts transitioning from warlords you need to appease to general rich dudes whose ancestors were great at killing people that you still need to appease.

The above is the Crown Prince you seem to be imagining.

Outside the Merchant Prince, who controls his kingdom through trade, the warrior Crown Prince is an auxiliary commander under his father or, in cases where the king is weak, the true commander of his countries forces. He’ll be landed in his own right as an earl or a duke with a province to rule over, his own vassals, lordlings, and young knights who strive to be in his service. He’s surrounded by followers and advisors with his own household and a vassal to his father, the king. He’s unlikely to be just sitting around spinning his heels until he takes the throne, unless he’s got a father who is very controlling about what powers he has access to.

This Crown Prince may seem appealing, but the world he exists in is cutthroat, rough and tumble. There’s none of the stability provided by the Treaty of Westphalia, which is the unnamed factor seen in modern fairy tale kingdoms. The chances of him fighting to keep his crown or simply fighting on the battlefield at some point in his life is a certainty rather than a maybe. He has to know how to fight and he has to be damn good at it or else it will end badly for him. This includes if he’s living in a world under the medieval warfare rules where there’s the possibility ransom. Kings, princes, warlords, and leaders are always priority targets on the battlefield. Everyone wants to kill or capture them because that ends the battle/raid/war.

They’re not just rich guys, they’re expected to be leaders of men. If they can’t do that, and they’re not supported by excellent nobles then they lose the crown, lose their land, or lose their empire. As has happened with many an unfortunate prince throughout history.

Even if you’re going for the type of Crown Prince seen in fiction and post-Westphalia, military service is often considered traditional and is expected. A modern example is our current British royal family, many of them have served in the British military in some capacity whether they saw combat or not; this includes Elizabeth II.

However, the question of whether your character should learn to fight or not is heavily dependent on the kind of setting they live in and the social expectations their role places them under. The legacy of his family, the number of generations they’ve held onto their throne. Then, there’s the question of who he is versus who he expects to be, the boy versus the prince and the man versus the king. He might be expected to be good at fighting, but he might not want to be. Is it necessary for him to be a skilled combatant? Or can he rule without the need for those skills? Does he want to be good at fighting? Does he enjoy it?

These are the sorts of questions that only you, the author can answer. The situation, the politics, and the world your character live in all affect the role he has inherited.

So, start sorting out that world. Pick a period in history where princes fought. Learn everything you can about that time period, and why they behaved the way they did.

Do you want an athletic prince? Do you want a warrior prince? Or both? Both are fine. Does your prince live in a war time or a peace time? Which of the two does he long for? Quiet or conquest? If he isn’t bound to a parliament or some other body of government his nobles use to control him then he has the power and resources to make either happen.

Ultimately, the decision is up to you.

– Michi

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Q&A: Practice, Practice Practice

Would learning to use a sword for the first time cause muscle fatigue or blisters? At what age should fantasy characters typically start learning? How long does it take to become ‘skilled’? For some reason I’m having trouble figuring out how to write a realistic progression.

There’s a certain level where this question can’t be answered because “fantasy” covers a vast range, and even medieval fantasy could cover a variety of different weapons that are all under the “sword” header. Besides that, the amount of time it takes for someone to become proficient depends on their dedication and opportunities for training.

The basic issue with writing a training sequence in fiction is that you are instructing the audience as well as the character. You have to write the teacher and student both. If you can’t do that, then you can’t write the scene. Teaching requires you have the knowledge necessary to, well, teach. If you don’t know then you need to learn, and learning requires a lot of work.

If you’ve never learned how to fight, never spent a lot of time acquiring a similar skill set, or never done any martial arts of any kind then, yes, you’ll have difficulty figuring out a realistic training progression that your character went through.

So, let’s start with something simple. The easiest way to figure out “realistic” progression is to:

A) Do your research on historical figures.

C) Do your research on the art of sword fighting. There’s a lot of great references available out there. I suggest starting with Skallagrim and Matt Easton.

B) Correlate to your own experiences.

Have you ever done sports? Even sports you were forced to do as part of high school gym class? Have you ever run a mile? You couldn’t get enough air, your muscles were killing you (including some you never knew existed), you wanted to die, some asshole teacher kept yelling at  you to hurry up, and you hated it?

In broad strokes, learning to fight is a lot like that and the people you hated in gym class like the teacher’s pets who enjoyed physical exercise and were really good at it because they were also athletes… those are the ones who’d be the good fighters in your story.

If you’ve never engaged in any other serious exercise then internalize your high school gym experiences. Especially the embarrassing, sweaty, tired, bloated, painful, red-faced, gasping parts or, you know, failing to do any pull ups at all when asked. Think about how much you hated pushups. Now, think about this, your character is going to be doing lots, and lots, and lots of those!

If your character gets to hold a sword during their first lesson (doubtful, but possible), it won’t be a real one. They’ll get a practice sword, which will either be made of wood or blunted metal.

Then, they’ll spend the entirety of that lesson learning how to stand, and (maybe) how to hold their practice sword.

Eastern martial arts like the Korean, Japanese, and Chinese martial curriculums won’t let you touch a weapon during the first four years of training. Many Chinese martial arts have a very specific progression between weapons because the techniques you learn feed into each other. The staff is the foundational weapon, then the sword, then upwards until you reach the chain weapons like the meteor hammer, dart, and whip chain which are the most difficult to control.

Western martial arts aren’t quite as structured, but they’re still structured. I’m going to assume this character is not some peasant farmer called up as a levy, who has a spear thrust into their hands and thrown out into battle to die for their lord. If you’re thinking of your character as a trained martial combatant, trained by someone be it the castle arms master or someone else, then they’re going to have to learn the basics, and those start with…

FOOTWORK!

This is the rule of all martial arts: if your foundation sucks then you’re going to die. Or, at the very least, you will lose.

You don’t start swinging a sword around, you start with your feet and your legs. You’ve got to learn to perform two actions at once, by moving your arm in a way that’s different from your legs, and combine both into a single movement then link them all together into a multitude of movements. You need to build up muscles in your calves, hamstrings, and thighs. You’ve got to develop balance. Balance starts with learning how to set your feet. You’ve got to have your stances or a stiff wind will blow you over.

You can’t just take blows, you need to learn how to, and the final arbiter of staying upright is not your arms or your upper body but your feet. A shallow stance means you cannot maintain your balance, bad footwork will let your enemy know you’re coming, and you’ll never reach them. You can’t close the distance.

Footwork is one of the main tells between a professional/trained fighter and an untrained fighter. Body position is ingrained from the beginning to the point where you no longer need to think about it.

When martial artists talk about foundation, they’re talking not just talking about basic techniques, they’re literally talking about where you put your feet.

Have you ever stood with your knees bent at a forty-five degree angle, leaning forward onto the balls of your feet for one to two, much less five to ten minutes? If not, then yes, you will experience muscular fatigue.

Now, let’s get to…

CONDITIONING!

You gotta build that endurance.

The average fight will only last around thirty seconds, but you will be sprinting all out. You may be fighting multiple small battles in a large engagement, and when your body gives out then you die.

What most people mistake about swords is the idea that they’re heavy. They’re not. However, keeping two to four pounds in continuous motion for a couple minutes much less the length of a full fledged melee is exhausting. You want to run in a flat out sprint for thirty minutes? No. No, you don’t.

So, what does this mean? A large portion of your character’s early (and later) training will involve conditioning similar to what you experienced in gym class in the beginning, and grow ever more intense!

You will do your morning exercises and stretches to loosen up your muscles (because starting cold is asking for injury), then go on your jog, then you get to practice techniques, then go on another run, get a bout of conditioning, then run up a hill, and then finish up with end of day stretches before eating dinner and falling into bed.

Rinse, lather, repeat.

The point of conditioning is not to push you past what you’re capable of, but to push you past what you think you’re capable of. Building wind and muscle requires work, practicing your techniques when you’re tired helps you learn to push through exhaustion, and you need repetition to ingrain these techniques into your muscle memory to the point they become instinctive reactions. You get used to your muscles being tired so you can force them to work when you need them.

Conditioning is a training ladder, you find a variety of humps to get over, and after you manage past each then training gets easier for a short period, then more gets added and you start all over again.

Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

You will do those basics over and over and over and over and over and over again before you ever get to try them on another live human being, and when you finally get to they will be slowly structured by a one two three count breakdown where the entire attack is broken apart, then you get to do it at slow speed, then half-speed, then full-speed, and then one day in the far flung future you’ll get to spar. Not with a real sword, but with a blunted training sword and in padded gear so you don’t kill your partner.

Proficiency is Practice, Practice Takes Time

How fast does it take for someone to become proficient? At the very least, in a couple of months you could train someone to be infantry fodder. Consider this, a medieval knight began his education at the age of seven and was considered battlefield ready by the age of twenty-one. He probably saw combat before then as a squire when he became one at fourteen, but we’re looking at a training period of seven years for live combat training and seven years prior for general education. So, timetable necessary to produce a combat elite is fourteen years.

Now, the average knight knew how to do a lot more than swing a sword. He could handle a variety of weaponry, could fight on horseback, and presumably hold a leadership position over his lord’s infantry. A knight is a combat elite.

Your character who started training at eighteen will be overrun by the guy who started training at seven. They have a decade of training and battlefield experience on the other guy.

The men and women in their thirties are crazy good.

Masters have been doing this for thirty to forty years.

You should decide early on how good you want your character to be and plan their backstory accordingly. It’s fine if they’re not at the top, but it’s worth understanding that combat is baked into warrior cultures like the vikings or the germanic tribes. Their kids practiced spear throwing by throwing sticks back and forth as a game, then graduated as adults to catching javelins and throwing them back at Roman legionaries.

Development of Skill Requires Desire and Dedication

How quickly your character progresses will depend on their desire and their dedication. The person who wants to do this will progress faster than the person who doesn’t, who slacks off, and does the bare minimum. All the natural talent in the world won’t change that.

This is the problem a lot of fantasy novels and YA novels face with the protagonist versus their training rival. The training rival is often the guy working harder than the protagonist, especially when they don’t want to be there. A lot of the time, there’s no legitimate reason for the best in class training rival to even feel threatened by these protagonists. They’re no threat to them or their position in the class, and I use “threat” loosely.

I have a lot of experience with the kids in training classes who don’t want to be there. Trust me, as someone who once was one and who was their instructor, they don’t progress. Most of them quit at the earliest opportunity. The ones with a lot of natural talent who just put in the bare minimum because everything is easy end up middling to mediocre if not plain bad.

Physical training is pretty much 90% mental, which means you don’t become good just by showing up. You choose to commit. You chase excellence. You choose to push through the exhaustion and pain by sheer willpower. Most importantly, you don’t give up. You’re defined by tenacity, and your willingness to push past what you believe to be possible.

The guy or girl who is the best is the one who shows up to class earliest and leaves last. They eat, sleep, and dream their training.

Top level athletes are the ones who have sacrificed everything to their craft. The younger they are, then the more time they’ve devoted to that singular aspect of their life at the expense of everything else.

This is what they want.

So, decide early what your actual goal is for this character and their level of skill. Then, you need go learn about different kinds of swords, training, sports education, etc. Once you have those two things, it’ll be easier to figure out the rate your character progresses at.

-Michi

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Q&A: Where do I begin? Anywhere you want.

Hi I can’t decide the timeline to start story. What should be the main event in story?

You included either a lot of backstory or potential plot hooks for your narrative in the question, all of which have the potential to be very interesting stories in their own right, and that’s why we’re going to talk about something else.

Where do I start my story?

This is the question a lot of authors wrestle with and the answer is surprisingly simple — anywhere you want.

You don’t even need to start writing at the start of your story, you can start writing the middle first, or even the ending, and then start from the beginning once you know where you’re going. When I get stuck, I often write the parts in the future which I find interesting and work my way towards it because that gives me a point to aim for.

You have to start somewhere, so start with what interests you.

If you find yourself getting caught up in massive details for a fantasy setting spread across multiple dimensions and lifetimes then… write the ideas down, make note of them, fill up your notebooks with all that detail for your setting bible. That way, you can always come back to it later for more inspiration. Once you’ve done that, move on to your characters. Take a moment to step away from the big world changing events, but on the individuals in your story. The ones who will ultimately be the driving force behind these events.

These smaller, individual stories are the ones which carry the overarching plot and a narrative that could encompass anything from multiple books, or simply be the epic backstory of just one.

So, who interests you? The great hero at the height of their reign? The Rise of the Big Bad? The hero reincarnated into a new world, scrabbling to put together the pieces of their past life? Or, is it someone else? The rebellious general who realizes the evil they serve isn’t creating the world they hoped for? A young scribe keeping notes in the halls of an evil sorcerer  who steals the mcguffin and runs off to join the rebels? A battered, down on their luck bounty hunter after the relic so they can sell it to the highest bidder? A frustrated and angry high school student stuck in a small world, who dreams of a more fantastical one, where they’re the hero winth incredible powers, who wants the world they’ve seen in their dreams, but when those dreams become a reality realizes it might be more than they ever bargained for?

Epic narratives (rather than epics, the genre) can come from any narrative. The bounty hunter could be hunting the scribe, who could wind up on a buddy/road trip adventure as they carry a mystical object toward their world’s salvation or destruction. This could be an epic narrative filled with humor, potential romance, and heartache. Or, it could be cliche.

The story could be cliche, or it could be fantastic, it might even be cliche and fantastic. (This is, frankly, my favorite type of story.)

You won’t know until you sit down and start writing it.

You won’t know until you’ve finished your first draft. (All first drafts are terrible.)

You won’t know until you’ve restructured the whole thing in your second, third, fourth, and fifth drafts.

You may end up with a story wildly different from the one you imagined when you first sat down to write. This is part of why the place where you start doesn’t need to be your beginning. Writing is a journey of self-discovery, a discovery of your own creative process.

So, pick somewhere. Don’t worry if it’s the perfect character, or the right place. You can end up at right and perfect, but you can’t expect right and perfect in the beginning. You can accept messy, clumsy, and unsure. Trust yourself to get to the gem you imagine inside your mind, keep working at it and you will. Remember that what you read from a published novel is the end result of a product polished to a shine. Where we start is with a diamond, or even a rock full of diamonds we’ll need to chip out of the mountain before we can show them off. Creation is often a messy, embarrassing process filled with horror, joy, and terror. There may occasionally be hair pulling and screaming. You’ll give yourself a lot more grief trying to avoid this, than you will by just embracing it.

You don’t have to write in a straight line.

You do write one line at a time.

So, start writing.

-Michi

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Q&A: Writing The Tournament

I’m writing a story about a fighting tournament, but I’m not especially familiar with tourney structures except for video games. What are common martial arts tournament formats? I think double-elimination ought to work well for my story because it can get so dramatic, but there might be something else more suitable.

This is a pretty good breakdown on martial arts bracket systems used in tournaments.

I’m going to spend this post talking about how tournaments and the martial arts tournament genre works in a narrative context. This includes more than your protagonist, but your role in tournament management because you’re going to need to be all the parts in order for this to work. After all, the one who structures the tournament is you. If you’ve never actively participated in tournaments, any tournaments, or done anything behind the scenes when it comes to structuring them then going complex upfront will result in your narrative spinning wildly out of control.

The Tournament Brackets Are Your Plot

In a martial arts tournament narrative every match up is a character building exercise. The fights are the catharsis to the tension building between rivals and friends in the story. Each fight is the culmination of a smaller plot running parallel to the primary narrative. These are the not just the physical challenges the protagonist overcomes in chasing their dream of winning a championship, but also challenges their morals, their emotions, and their intelligence. Each fight is a building block toward the final conflict, resulting in the protagonist becoming a stronger and more well-rounded person as they are challenged to address their flaws in both fighting style and in their character.

Each of these fights are a very important step on the rung toward victory where the greatest challenge awaits. Every fallen friend, rival, rival-friend, enemy turned friend, and friend turned enemy is a just one more means to forge your protagonist in fire.  Each match up is carefully structured to maximize the drama, and provide unique challenges to the protagonist. Seeing the protagonist overcome these challenges is what makes the fight interesting, not the fight itself.

You should consider how many small character dramas you have it in you to write in addition to your main plots as we cycle upwards, the necessary subplots for other important rival characters and matches needed to establish these rivals as a legitimate threat before the protagonist faces off with them.

The tournament is your basic plot outline. Like with seeding in a real tournament, you’re going to want to be meticulous about your match ups before you sit down to write. You need to know who if fighting whom and how that turned out, including some specific events which can reach your protagonist in whispers even if you don’t show any of it on screen.

Drama is Created By Characters

I’m going to make this point upfront because I see the thought process with double elimination, but don’t make the mistake of assuming the tournament structure will do the work for you. An exciting tournament, whether fictional or in real life, is the result of someone’s hard work. In the real world, this is multiple people. In your novel, this is just you and whomever you roped in to help you build all the characters you’ll need for this story to function.

Unless you’re really good at writing fight scenes, and you better be if you’re writing a martial arts tournament, and even if you are, you’ve got to take time to establish a whole bunch of characters who’ll be important friends and rivals. You’re going to need extra chapters between your fight chapters to establish the character dynamics, so your audience can become invested in what happens to the major players.

Single Elimination

The tournament brackets are the layout of your plot, and this is the reason why Single Elimination is the popular choice for tournaments in both real life and fiction.

32 Characters = 6 Matches for your protagonist.

64 characters = 7 matches.

This translates to about six chapters to seven, this gives you a lot of time to focus on the other characters like your character’s rivals, future rivals, take a look at the next challenger, watch a match, get to know our other characters, develop friendships, and a whole bunch of other necessary stuff during the downtime between fights.

You can devote a lot of time to building up each of the fights as their own mini-narratives in a 70,000-80,000 word novel, and not feel as pressed for time with getting a lot of different fight scenes or character narratives jammed in.

Double Elimination

So, with double elimination, the most important aspect to understand is that if the protagonist loses any match then the highest they’ll end up is usually around third place.

You’ll have twice as many matches as single elimination, which means you have that many more fights to write. A protagonist goes from having around 6 to 7 matches to 12 to 14, plus the extra matches you’ll need to put together for the rivals and friends. Which, if you’ve never put together a match up between two characters, is a lot more work with a lot less time for ancillary detail. The lower brackets constantly fill up as more players lose, everyone gets at least two fights which is great for martial arts tournaments where you’re putting them together primarily for experience. This is about half your 70,000 to 80,000 word novel (if you want to get it published) of twenty to thirty chapters devoted to one character’s fights with less time for the build up your other necessary characters.

Remember, the novel’s secondary characters are important to keeping your tournament functional. In a double elimination system where you’re defeated twice you’re out, there’s no reason to pit the same person against the person who defeated them.

The attraction of the Double Elimination to most writers is going to be the idea of the protagonist getting knocked into the elimination bracket early by their rival and then being forced to fight their way up through that entire bracket for a second match against the rival who defeated them. Then, this time, they finally win.

Except, if you allow this to happen in real life then you create a situation where there are no victors because no one finished the tournament undefeated.

In real life, the second bracket has its own final which decides third place and the person who was previously eliminated will most likely never fight someone from that first bracket again. This kills the idea of rival revenge.

Rival revenge should be based on actions that happen in previous tournaments, the next tournament down the line, or actions taken outside the tournament, but not within the tournament itself.

Have I mentioned you need to be really good at writing fight scenes?

Round Robin, (See Also: Swiss and Dutch)

Everybody fights everybody.

This one probably won’t appeal as it is a points based competition where everyone keeps fighting until someone wins. It is a popular set up in smaller tournaments, particularly for sparring, which lets students get a lot of tournament sparring practice. It is really easy for the fights to get unbalanced early, and you essentially calculate the bouts based on the number of participants.

This is a very long tournament, multiday to multiweek, and you’d most likely be cutting a lot of it out from your narrative (though you’d still need to keep track of what happened in those other bouts.) This format is primarily for soccer and similar sports, while swiss is chess.

I don’t suggest non-elimination formats for martial arts.

Visual versus Written

It is worth understanding that the martial arts tournament genre is primarily designed for a visual medium. In this case, showcasing all the fights is important because your audience is there for the experience. Establishing unique visual motifs for each character is important because it makes the scenes more visually engaging when you’re watching these characters get slapped around. We see more than we need to, yes, but that visual stimulation is part of why people watch martial arts movies or the shounen anime fighting genre like Yu Yu Hakusho, Boku no Hero Academia, or Dragon Ball Z.

You don’t get access to any of this when you’re writing.

Your characters are going to be the driving force behind the drama in a written tournament narrative, and you can’t cheat off visual stimulation provided by skilled stunt actors or vibrant artistic explosions. The fight scenes are not the focus, you can’t expect them to hold the audience’s attention, they’re an extension of the character drama occurring within the narrative itself. This means a narrowed focus on one or two characters with a meticulous and careful structuring of character experiences.

The second problem posed by anime in structure is that the fights are designed to pad out an entire season, or an entire manga arc, which, from a written perspective, encompasses multiple books. In a manga, preparations for the preliminaries are an arc (novel), getting to the preliminaries is an arc (novel), the preliminaries are an arc (arc), then the first stages before finals are an arc, and then we get to the finals which are often an arc in and of themselves. So, if you pace your story like an anime then you get about five novels. They’re set up as serialized stories.

For a novel, you need to focus. You’ll do a lot of work in setting the whole tournament up, and the novel will show about a 1/3 or less of it because there’s a lot of stuff we don’t need to know about.

Character Progression Match Ups: Establish Your Rules.

The primary reason for establishing multiple fighting styles for various characters is to help create an unbalance or underdog status for the protagonist. However, in a written format you don’t get access to the tension built by one character primarily wielding fists versus someone who is a kicker in a mixed martial arts tournament. You’ll need a solid grasp of your protagonist’s fighting style, taking into consideration both its flaws and weaknesses. A better grasp you have on combat then the easier this will be for you.

You’ll also need to decide on how someone designates a win. Most martial arts tournaments are points based with different points being assigned based on the type of hit or difficulty of the technique. Taekwondo sparring matches assign one point for basic punches to the torso, two for basic kicks to the torso, three for a kick to the head, and technical kicks score more.

The various strategies your characters use will be based on the type of competition, though they will come up with different strategies based on their own preferred tactics. An example is that technical kicks in Taekwondo like spin kicks are more risky than basic kicks, and a more careful character might not use them even when they score higher. A character who is behind in their point count might feel pressed to use riskier attacks to get the five points off a single kick even though that is more difficult to pull off.

Your protagonist and their antagonists will devise strategies based off the rules. So, you’ve got to establish what those rules are and what constitutes a win.

Is it a forced concession like a tap out?

Is it getting knocked outside the right?

Is it a point based system scored on how well a character performs like in Taekwondo, Boxing, and Muay Thai? What does that point system look like?

Is it getting knocked out?

Is it death?

Are there places they can’t hit which result in penalties and eliminations? Is this no holds barred?

Does this tournament allow weapons?

What protective gear do they wear?

There are a lot of considerations to take into account, and for that reason I do suggest starting with a Single Elimination set up. It’ll be pretty easy to upgrade to Double when you get comfortable or run out of space, though I wouldn’t worry too much about not having enough fights or interesting fights. If you have that problem then adding more won’t actually help you.

Each fight match up with your protagonist is a cornerstone in your narrative, a point of character progression, a realization they have about themselves which helps them come away stronger and more prepared for the endgame. If you haven’t been looking at the fight scenes you planned for your novel in this way, then you should consider starting.

There’s not really much difference between an underdog starting from the bottom and never losing versus an underdog losing and fighting up from the bottom all over again except how well you did with the concept the first time round. Losing a fight is not a great way to get people invested in a character if they weren’t already. Besides, in a real world setup they’d never see that rival they lost to again.

Also, you need to be really good at writing fight scenes.

-Michi

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